Beyond the Baby

My husband and I have differing taste in movies. I like somber, based-on-true-stories movies, while G’Joe loves a good light-hearted, ridiculous flick. Needless to say, finding common ground so that one of us is not irate or sleeping the whole time we watch a film is a challenge. I needed to share that so you won’t judge me (or more like so I won’t judge myself) for having watched Tahladega Nights a few times.

In this movie there is a scene that is both hysterical and haunting (actually that could be true for many scenes). As the family is sitting around about to eat a meal, Will Ferrell begins to say a blessing.  He prays, “Dear Lord, baby Jesus” which ignites a debate about which Jesus to pray to. Ferrell says, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I am saying grace. When you’re saying grace, you can decide who to pray to.” The family then goes around the table and talks about how they like to picture Jesus: Jesus in a tuxedo shirt, samurai Jesus, and so on. And Ferrell concludes by praying to “Dear 6 lb 8 ounce newborn infant Jesus…thank you for all your power and grace, dear baby God.”

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Obviously, this is an extreme caricature, but what haunts me is the kernel of truth it is embellishing. I’m not saying that most people picture Jesus in a tuxedo suit or in a dojo; however, there is a sense in which people love to celebrate and enjoy only a chosen sliver of Jesus’ life. I read a challenging poem about a year ago that has been similarly haunting to me. Because of the onslaught of the Christmas season, I wanted to share it.

It is as if infancy
were the whole of incarnation
by Luci Northcote Shaw

One time of the year
The new-born child
Is everywhere,
Planted in madonna’s arms
Hay mows, stables,
In palaces or farms,
Or quaintly, under snowed gables,
Gothic angular or baroque plump,
Naked or elaborately swathed,
Encircled by Della Robbia wreaths,
Garnished with whimsical
Partridges and pears,
Drummers and drums,
Lit by oversize stars,
Partnered with lambs,
Peace doves, sugar plums,
Bells, plastic camels in sets of three,
As if these were what we need
For eternity.

But Jesus the Man is not be seen.
We are too wary, these days,
Of beards and sandalled feet.

Yet if we celebrate, let it be
That He
Has invaded our lives with purpose
Striding over picturesque traditions,
Our shallow sentiment,
Overturning our cash registers,
Wielding His peace like a sword,
Rescuing us into reality,
Demanding much more
Than the milk and softness
And the mother warmth
Of the baby in the storefront crèche,

(only the Man would ask
all, of each of us)
reaching out
always, urgently, with strong
effective love
(only the Man would give
His life and live
Again for love of us).

Oh, come, let us adore Him –
Christ – the Lord.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good creche. But I need to be reminded that Christmas was simply the beginning of the life of the God-man Jesus, “the one who has invaded our lives with his purpose,” who forces us to see ourselves and humanity through the most realistic, yet hope-filled lenses. We don’t like to be addressed in our sin-sickness, our weakness, or our superficiality, but this is exactly what Jesus lovingly does. He came to earth to be the perfect full-orbed human that we all fail so miserably to be. And this is our deep and abiding hope. This is the legacy of Christ, the Lord.

 

The Gift of A Timely Word

One of my favorite poets says, “When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us magi…heavy laden with parcels: each one his own king, his own camel.” Later in the poem, he call us “the bearers of moderate gifts.”

He has me on all accounts. I love driving my camel (er, my car) at Christmas time to gather up thoughtful, yet very moderate gifts to give to those I love. All the Starbucks cards for the teachers, the candy for the stockings, the slippers for my husband, the treats for the dogs.

But as much as I love to offer a Peppermint Mocha or a fresh new journal or a beautiful throw pillow (thanks, Chip and JoJo), I am trying hard to fight the urge to offer these primarily. After all, our beds abound with cute, boho throw pillows, but that doesn’t mean don’t fall asleep crying into them. Our endless Starbucks stops aren’t doing the job of fueling deeper purpose and lasting satisfaction.

Our world (or more specifically our souls) are longing for a timely word that speaks to us where we are, offering hope and direction. Generic platitudes won’t do. Memes don’t motivate for long enough. We long to know that God has a specific verse, a specific promise, a specific direction to meet us in the places of our confusion or pain or apathy.

The writer of Proverbs understood the gift of a timely word: “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23).

In his book The Town Beyond the Wall, writer Elis Wiesel captures a similar sentiment: “Sometimes it happens that we travel for a long time without knowing that we have made the long journey solely to pronounce a certain word, a certain phrase, in a certain place. The meeting of the place and the word is a rare accomplishment.”

The problem with offering such a timely word, one has been incubating and bathed in prayer, is that, in order to have such a word, we have to be still and available enough to listen. A timely word requires having a tongue which has been taught which requires an eager ear.

The Tongue of Those Who Are Taught and the Eager Ear

In a portion of Isaiah in which the Spirit speaks of the coming servant who will save Israel, we read the following:

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may known how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward” (Isaiah 50:4-5).

Christ always had a timely word for those he encountered. He was able to offer life-altering and life-sustaining words because he always listened to the Father. His eager ear and obedient posture ensured that he would have the tongue of one who is taught. 

While, this side of glory, the same will not be said of us, we are invited to become more and more like our Master. I long to be able to offer the tongue of one who is taught to those I encounter this holiday season and all year round. This requires that I fight the strong urge to go bustling about my day, checking things off my growing to-do list. This means that I have to show up every morning in the presence of the Lord with expectancy that he has living and abiding words to speak into and over me. I have to fight to believe that the crumbs from our little private feast might be enough to feed hungry, hurting souls I encounter as I go about my day. 

May we run to the Father with eager ears, believing that he surely has a word for us since he became the Living Word for us. May we have tongues that are taught and ready to sustain weary ones with his word. May we not settle for platitudes but press more deeply into the presence of God. 

Most certainly offer the gift cards and the slippers and the cookies, but also seek to offer a timely word. 

The Long Way Home

Whenever we are in two cars headed to the same destination, my husband and I channel our inner Nascar and compete to see who can get home the quickest. Our children love this game and feed the competition, throwing out short cuts and back alleys we should take to win the beloved bragging rights. I love a good short cut; who doesn’t?

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to becoming or building disciples.  If there were, we can be sure that Paul, Mr. Driven himself,  or, for that matter, Jesus, the smartest man who has ever lived would have found and frequented them.

The Bible is replete with stories of people whom God took the long way. Abram was promised a child after a long waiting; yet in exhaustion with the painstaking timetable, he settled for a shortcut and literally made an Ishmael. We know how well that shortcut went.

On the mad dash out of the land of oppressive Egypt, God took his people a long way to avoid the temptations that would have ensnared his wandering people on the direct route through pagan territory.

Jesus didn’t grow straight from infant king to world-changing Rabi like the just-soak-in-water toys my children love. He went the long way of childhood and puberty.

In an even more significant moment, during his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus refused to take the shortcuts that the enemy laid before him so winsomely. Satan wasn’t tempting Christ to concepts that were wrong, after all, Christ was the Son of God and would one day inherit and rule the earth and could very easily make stones turn to bread and would soon be ministered to by angels. He was tempting Christ to take matters into His own hands and force His own timetable rather than accept the course that His Father had laid out for Him.

Yet I keep find myself searching for them, scouring book shelves for a parenting or marriage or discipleship book that can get me where I want myself, my spouse, my kids, my mentees to go more quickly, more easily.

Thanks to marketing and my own mangled souls, shortcuts scream at us, promising the desired ends by quicker means. From losing a few inches to gaining new church members, shortcuts shout at us in every arena of life.

However, if the slow, intentional history of redemption that ended in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that God is the God of the long way home.

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And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes the Lord is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18. 

From one tiny, often imperceptible iteration of glory to another, God takes His children and transforms them.

Rather than rocket us from one place to another in a nearly vertical trajectory, God chooses to take us one from one tiny level of glory to another in a way that often feels painfully horizontal. It seems that God gets more glory and we more dependence (which ultimately leads to joy) when we take the long way home.

As we approach the new year and a fresh number is tacked on where an old, bedraggled one once stood, we would do well to remember that God is not the God of shortcuts. God takes great delight in taking us, walking with us, leading us the long way home.

Rather than vowing to read my Bible more faithfully or to administer our family devotions more winsomely all while eating only kale for six months, this year I want to enjoy the presence of God as He takes me and my loved ones on the long way home.

 

 

 

 

Simeon Bears the Burden Bearer

Simeon was a story gatherer. As an elderly man, he carried the weight of the stories of his people, both collective and individual.  Every time someone came and shared with him his or her story of loss or loneliness, a child born or a child lost, he surely felt the weight of his role.

He would do all he could under the Old Covenant to  bring those weights to God; yet, I imagine the cumulative effect of his job as an elder in a flock who had been waiting under 400 years of divine silence weighed his soul down.

Luke, whose gospel gives the most detailed accounts of the events surrounding and emanating from the birth of Christ, tells us the following:

Now there was a man Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
Luke 2: 25.

A short sentence that clues us in to significant details of this man’s life. He was the ideal Jew, the best you could get under the Old Covenant. The Holy Spirit would come upon him and guide him, which was a rare occurrence. And he was waiting for the comfort of his people, for the One who could fully bear the weight of the stories that sagged down his soul.

The Greek word translated waiting is prosdechomai, an incredibly active word in the Greek middle voice which, according to HELPS Word Studies, signifies high personal involvement. It gives the image of someone leaning in towards something, actively ready to receive it warmly, or on tip toes looking for expected thing.

The word translated consolation, paraklésis,  is actually the same root word used to describe the Holy Spirit later in Luke’s gospel and the sequel Acts, in which the Holy Spirit plays a prominent role. This word means encouragement and comfort from close beside. When my son was in incredible pain after rupturing his ear drum, I spent the night curled up beside him whispering comfort to him as I rubbed his back.  This image is close to the idea portrayed by the word translated consolation in the above verse.

Elderly Simeon was leaning in, eagerly awaiting the Messiah whom the Holy Spirit had told him would arrive before his death. He longed to see his people consoled, to lay eyes on the One who would be able to bear the weight of their stories and console them from close beside in a way he knew he never could.  We have no indication that he knew to expect a baby.

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In walks a poor couple, most likely exhausted from traveling all the way to Jerusalem with their baby. They had come to consecrate their firstborn to the Lord, as the Law commanded. They could not afford the expensive offerings, so they had to settle for the pair of pigeons.

Simeon picks up the child and knows.

And he came in the Spirit into the Temple, and when the parents bought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Luke 2:27-32.

The Greek word, dechomai, translated into the phrase took up the child, is the same root as the word chosen for Simeon waiting eagerly for the Promised One.

All those years of eagerly waiting to warmly receive the promised one culminate in this one moment of him actually warmly welcoming an infant into his elderly arms. In a surprising moment, Simeon warmly received the Messiah that he can been eagerly, actively waiting for his whole life.

I imagine that as lifted up the promised Child, physically bearing the One who would bear the weight of the sins of the world once for all, the burdens of the stories he held lifted. This fragile, little, squirmy child, so frail and small he had to be held, could and would bear the weights that had been too much for Simeon.

With the weight of the world transferred to the One who could bear it, Simeon could depart in peace. The old man of the Old Covenant warmly welcomed the New child who would usher in the New Covenant of grace. All would be well.

Simeon

His weary eyes were tired, but even more so was his heart,
Longing to see the Lord’s anointed and then in peace depart.

Had he heard it wrong? Was the promise merely hopeful delusion?
Had decades of faithful service and waiting led only to confusion?

Interrupting his wrestling, two simple Nazarenes drew near,
Carrying their newborn son, filled with deep and reverent fear.

They came to obey the custom, but for a lamb they could not pay.
For the firstborn’s consecration, two pigeons would be offered today.

Simeon saw the approaching family and knew without a doubt,
This was the Christ, the Chosen One, Who the Word had told about.

At once his eyes glittered and his tense heart founds its  rest,
As he held the fragile baby so close to his shaking chest.

Looking to God, as tears streamed down his wrinkled cheek,
He praised the One, who being strong had willfully become weak.

God sent the promised salvation; He had been true to His word;
This child would open His kingdom to Gentiles who had not heard.

By grace Simeon was able to understand what so few others could;
This child’s perfect life would bring him to a shameful cross of wood.

Though they would make a sacrifice to consecrate him that day,
He would be the final sacrifice; the price of our sin he would pay.

They stood holding Him in the Temple, a building firm and sound,
Yet His body was the true temple razed to be raised from the ground.

Simeon’s frail hands lifted up the One who would be lifted high,
The One who would live a perfect life only our death to die.

The Redeemed hugged the Redeemer in an embrace of humble love,
For this was Jesus, God come down, the Provision of Peace from above.

Hope deferred may make the heart sick, this Simeon could tell,
But Desire coming is the tree of life; Jesus makes all things well.

Light Pollution & God’s Power in the Darkness

I know. I know. I sound like Scrooge talking about light pollution just as people are going to great lengths to hang little twinkly lights all over their homes and hearths (I see you on your ladders and applaud your efforts!).

At first, Advent may seem a strange season to talk about darkness; however, the deep and persistent darkness set the backdrop on which the brilliant star pointed to the more brilliant Savior.

Four hundred years of prophetic silence. No fresh “Thus says the Lord” upon which to hang their hope. Even a recent correction proves the presence of the loving Father, but there was not even that for four hundred years.

The famous Isaiah 9 passage that we love to hear children quote in their precious voices begins with “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone” (Isa. 9:2). It seems a prerequisite to enjoying the light is understanding and experiencing the darkness. As much as I want to rush the process, the Lord has been covering me with his hand and holding me in what feels like darkness.

I’ve been wrestling with God’s goodness even though I know deep-down that He is altogether good. My mind knows it, but my heart often struggles to keep pace. I’ve been doing my part, dragging my doubts and questions and stubborn struggles into his presence. I’ve been digging deeply into the Word, asking for my community to pray for me. I was beginning to get frustrated with the Lord until he gave me an image that has helped me.

He reminded me that we pay great amounts of money and expend great energy as city-dwellers to get away from the distractions, the light pollution, the busy pace. We rent cabins and drive to far-away trail heads. Our family literally did this last week with a few other pastor friends and their families!

Sometimes, in order to show us the brilliance of his light, our gracious God willingly and wisely leads us into dark places and spaces.

Light Pollution

When we are surrounded by scores of other lesser light sources, we don’t appreciate the sun by day and the moon by night. My life is so busy with so many illuminative blessings that, sometimes, they obscure my hunger and need for the Light of the world.

How sweet and intimate of the Lord to lead my soul into dark places and hold me there. My eyes are beginning to adjust to the darkness and are beginning to see the outlines of glories and graces even in a dark cave.

David, who literally dwelt in dark caves for a good season of his life, understood the light of the Lord’s presence even in darkness. Countless psalms he wrote attest to the light of goodness of God seen even in the darkest of circumstances.

“If I say, ‘Surely, the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me night.’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as day, for darkness is as light with you” (Ps. 139:11-12).

The minor prophet Micah, who served Israel during one of its distinctly darker seasons, wrote along the same lines:

“Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in the darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8).

The Lord allowed me to stumble upon the following quote from Alexander MacLaren which expresses beautifully what I have been experiencing.

“He who patiently endures without despondency or the desire to ‘recompense evil for evil,’ and to whom by faith even ‘the night is light about him,’ is far on the way to perfection. God is always near us, but never nearer than when our hearts are heavy and our way rough and dark. Our sorrows make rents through which His strength flows. We can see more of heaven when the leaves are off the trees. It is a law of the Divine dealings that His strength is ‘made perfect in weakness.’ God leads us in to a darkened room to show us His wonders.”

When the Lord sees fit to draw my soul out of these caverns, what a gloriously blinding light I will see! If you find yourself in dark circumstances, may you know God’s power even in the darkness!

The Light of the World will return in his glory. Until then, let us hold fast to His promises!

Lighting the Star

Familiarity breeds contempt, which is why a sanctified imagination is an important ingredient in the Christian life. When we get over-used to the stories, the miracles, and the wonders, we miss opportunities to go deeper into the knowledge of God (Col. 1: 10).

Every year for about a decade, I have prayerfully written an Advent poem to help refresh the wonder and glory of the incarnation of Christ. C.S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, calls the incarnation of Christ the central or grand miracle of the Christian life. “We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because by it we can see everything else.” While we will never fully understand the miracle of the incarnation, by the Incarnate Christ, we are invited to more fully understand the very nature of our God (Heb. 1:1-3). The reality that God, the creator of time and space, would insert himself humbly into his creation for our salvation deserves a lifetime of wonder and intentional inspection.

As I have been reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, my heart has been pulled toward Abraham and Sarah. I love how God, like any incredible writer (or rather, every incredible writer gets his cues from the ultimate story writer who is our God), ties in the details in a masterful way.

The promise Abram received in Ur was to become the father of many nations (Gen. 12:1–3). Abraham and Sarah’s story, set on the backdrop of a desert and including the profound imagery of numbering stars and sand, focused on the receiving of a promised child (Gen. 13:14–17; Gen. 15: 1–6). The story of Abraham finds its climax when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved, only, miraculous son, Issac. Without a moment to spare, God steps in and stays the trembling father’s hand, providing a ram (Genesis 22).

Lighting the star

I love how God allows a uniquely bright and perfectly-timed star to show off the birth of the better Isaac, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. I love how Jesus’s story involved lots of desert and dust. I cannot imagine what those realities must have meant to Abraham as he watched from the presence of God as God’s promise came to full fruition through Christ.

Lighting the Star

Did Abraham watch in wonder as you lit the star?
Did Sarah’s laughter of joy serve as kindling?
Desert sands, promised sons, stars afar!
The chasm between promise and fulfillment dwindling!

The pulsing promise of a miraculous son;
Progeny more numerous than lights in the sky;
In Isaac, immediate fulfillment had begun,
But the ultimate fulfillment now drew nigh.

A strangely bright star, so recently spun,
Indicating the arrival of the Lamb,
The eternally-begotten beloved Son —
This time there would be no ram.

The father of nations sees the Son of Man,
As Sarah erupts again in holy laughter! 
This Son was the zenith of God’s plan!
He is the Savior long sought-after!

Shine brightly, star! Show off his birth!
Weary world, receive Him of infinite worth!

May Christ kindle a fresh curiosity and wonder in our heart as we approach the Advent season. May we hear his voice over the clarion calls of consumerism. As we decorate our homes, may we be reminded that our deepest, truest home is being hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).

When Questions are Your Company

It’s funny. In the toddler years, I expected the near-constant series of “Why?” from my curious children. Yet, I am learning that the teenage years and the adult years are equally marked by lingering, loitering questions. While the questions may be less constant, they make up for the infrequency with the increasing sobriety attached to them.

Teenagers and adults, on the whole, are less interested in the mechanics that make the sky blue or the reason for the chameleon’s colors. They want to know why God made them this way, why a good God allowed evil, why life isn’t fair, and a litany of other significant questions. As a curious learner who loves certainty, I like the former questions far more than the latter.

It seems God is far more comfortable with our questions than we are most of of the time. After all, God saw fit that the earliest recorded book of the Bible was the book of Job: a raw, reeling account of questions, first from a deeply confusing man and then from a compassionate yet transcendent God. Likewise, God graciously provided us with the questions posed by so many psalmists and prophets: Why do the nations rage? How long, O Lord? Why does the wicked renounce God? Will you forget me forever? How long, O Lord, will you look on? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook? (Pss. 2:1; 6:3; 13:1; 10:13; 13:1; 35: 17; Jer. 15:18).

Their Spirit-inspired and sovereignly-recorded questions serve as pavers to lead us through the weeds of confusion and heartache back towards the presence of the God who can handle our questions.

Far from being signs of lack of faith, these questions are often a right response to living in a world where what we know to be true about God doesn’t seem to square up with a crooked reality (from our limited, finite perspective). It would be more alarming if we were not asking these questions when we see, feel, and experience dissonance during our exile on earth.

Three Literary Helps When Questions Are Your Company

Lately, three very different writers have helped me feel less crazy in my sea of questions. They, along with the aforementioned prophets and psalmists, have been my company among in the land of questions marks.

In her book Suffering Is Never For Nothing, Christian writer Elisabeth Elliott reminds her readers that our reflexive question of “Why?” when suffering wreaks havoc in our hearts and homes is a gentle reminder that we aren’t the product of chance. If we are merely evolving organisms, why does not make sense, especially is there is no supernatural Creator ready to receive our questions and attempts to make sense of brokenness and pain.

In his book The Town Beyond the Wall, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel offers us an invitation to listen as Michael, the protagonist (who is also a Holocaust survivor) seeks to make sense of insensible evil. After surviving the concentration camps, he finds himself imprisoned in a Soviet town on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. In his cell with him is a devout Jew, Menachem, whose friendship and encouragement keeps him from losing his faith in God altogether. Though Menachem does not have answers, he continues to bring his deep, knotted questions into the presence of God. When Michael accuses him of blaspheming by asking such hard, honest, direct questions of God himself, he responds, saying, “I prefer to blaspheme in God than far from Him.”

Later, after Menachem has been released, Michael begins to understand the lesson his friend taught him as he seeks to help a younger prisoner. He writes that man must “as the great questions and ask them again, to look up at another, a friend, and to look up again: if two questions stand face to face, that’s at least something. It’s at least a victory.”

As believers in Christ, there is ample room for two people full of questions to look at one another and sit with each other in their questions. Sharing our questions and inviting others in to the mysteries which have us wrestling is a victory that honors our God. When my sons comes to me with a hard, “Why is this happening?” question, at best I can meet him with my own question and usher us into the presence of the God who will one day replace every question mark with an exclamation mark.

Lastly, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tinkers, Paul Harding’s thoughts about uncertainty have given me great solace as I wrestle with my own feelings of dis-ease and uncertainty.

“Your cold mornings are filled with heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace towards you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty.”

I love thinking about God using our uncertainties and even our deepest wrestlings to believe to draw us into deeper grace. The more we wrestle with him, the more intimate we become with him. Questions do not have to break our fellowship with God; refusing to bring them to him creates the distance, not the presence of the questions themselves.

If questions are your company right now, remember that you are in good company. Find a friend who will sit with you in the question and gently prod you into the presence of the One who invites our wrestling (if you are not sure, just ask Jacob who literally wrestled with the angel of the Lord).

Bringing questions to God shows faith, not a lack thereof. Press on, weary friend. He will come to us as sure as the sweet spring rains. What he has torn, he will heal. What he has stirred (or allowed to be stirred), he will settle.

“Come. let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains water the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3).

God answers our questions with a loving question of his own:

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My compassion grows warm and tender…for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:8-9).

Parenting Teens: Growing Together

My middle fella turns fourteen in a few days. My oldest fella recently experienced a big disappointment over which I had zero control. We have come a long way from organized play dates and tightly-swaddled lives. When I was pregnant, I was warned about swollen feet, but no one told me that my heart would swell like this. Maybe they tried; I probably was not ready to hear. After all, I had read all the books and I thought myself to be a capable human. Love hadn’t wrecked me yet.

Everyone did say that your parenting was the age of your oldest with whom you experience everything first. As such, we are experiencing high school together. And, I swear, I think its harder the second time!

God is teaching me so much about his heart for me as I feel all the feels with our teenage sons. My heart feels so deeply entangled with theirs, yet my involvement and vested interest in their lives is a drop in a bucket compared to God’s covenant-involvement in the lives of his children (parents included).

If I being rock-hearted am shattered with sorrow for my children, how much more does God’s heart ache when his children hurt. If He takes no delight in the punishment of the wicked, he certainly does not stand back stoically watching his adopted sons and daughters suffer (Ezek. 18:32; Lam. 3:31-33).

If I, limited in wisdom and power as I am, stand ready in the wings to step towards my children in relief and response, how much more does God Almighty stand ready to rescue his hurting children.

There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty. The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deut. 33. 26–27).

Lately, my mind has been musing on the mysteries of quantum entanglement, but my heart has been experiencing the entanglement of love which is even more profound. God so orders the unseen particles that make up all matter so that two electrons that interact briefly are forever entangled even when they are light years apart. If Einstein didn’t get it, I surely won’t. However, I know what it feels like to have one’s heart willingly entangled by love in the lives of others. If we, being human, feel this reality, how much more does God himself who has graciously tied himself up with his children?

Entangled

If unseen electrons remain entangled
Even as they travel light years apart,
If tiny particles stay tied and coupled,
Then what hope has a mother’s heart? 

When life punches you, I bruise.
When your dreams break, I shatter.
Our seconds and souls are bound
As mother-son entangled matter.

One look of pain from you slays me;
I read the stories behind your eyes.
When life knocks you down, I fall, too;
But we’ll crawl to the Greater prize. 

The fire that singes you scorches me,
Removing from us doubled dross.
I grieve and grow right alongside you,
As we prayerfully process each loss.

One day, He’ll answer every question,
He’ll wipe every tear from your face.
Then we will be fully, forever, freely,
Entirely entangled with His grace.

May you know that the Maker of quarks and atoms has set his love on his children and involves himself in their cares and causes. May such an unbelievable reality stretch and pull you towards your Savior!

Paparazzi: Posturing Ourselves to Experience God’s Presence

I have limited experience with paparazzi, but the amount of time I spend glancing at the National Inquirer in grocery lines is enough to gather the basics.

There are people who spend a great deal of time studying and stalking the lives of high profile people simply to steal a fleeting glance or an off-center camera shot. They know the rhythms and preferences of the subjects they seek to find – the coffee shops, malls and vacation destinations they frequent, the times they get up and go to sleep and other seemingly extraneous details – in order to get a passing glance at said subject.

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Last night I studied Psalm 119. When I first came to faith, I loved this psalm for its fierce excitement, zeal and resolve. The psalmist makes many bold, sweeping declarations of intent.

How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to the Lord; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. Psalm 119:9-14.

As I have grown in the knowledge of my own inability to keep even the most well-intentioned resolutions, I have grown an aversion to Psalm 119. As I reread parts of the psalm, I found myself alternating between waves of confusion and conviction.

Does the gospel fit into and speak into a psalm with so much focus on law and decree and statute? The psalmist saw only parts of redemption, so what applies to us on the other side of the full revelation of God in the gospel? Are we to be as giddy and excited about the law and the commands as the psalmist? If so, why aren’t we? What sentiment, what state of soul and longing caused the psalmist to pen this meticulous psalm?

It seems that the answer to the latter lies in the deep longing of the writer to know and please God, to live every aspect of life under His smile and steady gaze.

In the time he was writing and musing, the law was the clearest manifestation of the character of God; the commands were merely extensions of the character of God. One can learn a significant amount of information about someone by studying their preferences and aversions, their passions and their pet peeves.

It seems to me that the psalmist was obsessing about the law out of an even deeper desire for and obsession with the God who spoke them. A deep desire for God’s pleasure and presence led him to make vows about keeping His word and following his law down to the littlest detail. It is as if the psalmist is saying, “If this is what God loves, then I want to love it; if God detests this, then I will avoid it at all costs. If God says these are the pathways He frequents, then I want to stay on those paths so I can experience His nearness.”

If this is the case, how does Christ inform this psalm? Is it nullified as an antiquated attempt to please God who cannot be pleased apart from the perfect life and undeserved death of Christ?

When the law-loving Jews of his day questioned what Christ’s life and bold declarations of diety would do the law, the answer came straight from the mouth of Christ himself: “I did not come to abolish the law, but the to fulfill it.”

We don’t get to toss Psalm 119 into a trash heap of ill-informed, immature theology, though our flesh, mine included, would love to do so.

If the psalmist, who only knew bits and pieces of the character and will of God, desired him so deeply, how much more should we, who have the fullest revelation of his character on the cross where love and justice kissed?

In the commands, we have glimpses into the preferences and aversions of the king who loved us enough to live and die for us while we still abhorred him. In the gospels we get a crystal clear, color image of what was a fuzzy, black-and-white image to the psalmist.

We do not obey the commands to find acceptance with God; our acceptance with God was secured for us by Christ. That being said, we do not ignore the law or His commands. Rather, we resolve to follow His commands as they are the clear paths God loves to frequent, the places we are most likely to see and experience Him in this life.

Seen in this light, purity becomes a favorite coffee shop where glimpses of God can be captured; humility becomes a sure fire place where one will find God’s nearness; dying to selfish desires in order to serve others who may not deserve service becomes a regular hangout for the presence of God.

In light of the clarity of God’s character in the cross, we have incredible motivation to want to be the paparazzi of His presence, those who do whatever it takes to be where God frequently shows up.

When Your Prayers Seem to Hit the Ceiling

C.S. Lewis wisely wrote in a letter to a friend, “We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.”

It’s hard to be honest when you know all the oughts (and when you are a pastor’s wife by training and calling and a perfectionist by personality). To bring a raw heart being the living God is an act of great faith.

This week, I found myself being gut-level honest with my husband and a few friends. My disposition changed from a forced smile to spontaneous tears when I admitted that if felt like God was not hearing my prayers – such an elementary-sounding, ye-of-little-faith statement. I could list of a thousand ways God has been faithful to me (as I have been and will continue to rehearse as fact no matter what I feel). Even so, Christ feels far off and I feel like one searching desperately for the felt nearness of his face.

I could tell you all the theological answers to this reality: God is not far off; he is the one in whom we live and move and have our being; he doesn’t change; he is closer than the air we breath. Yet the feelings of stuck-ness remain.

I know I am not the only one. I had a tearful conversation with a friend just yesterday who expressed feeling the same thing for years.

A few things have been helping me in this drought-season of my soul: one picture from my everyday life, a pair of verses, a quote, and a poem.

  1. You can’t get much closer to someone than when you are wrestling with them. Wrestling is an intimate, entwining act. As a mother of three boys, I am a self-appointed expert at watching impromptu, unofficial wrestling matches. Arms all braided into backs, legs around necks, the whole deal. Sometimes, in the midst of wrestling, one cannot view, whether partially or fully, the face of your wrestling partner. That does not mean that he or she is not close. In fact, the closeness obscures the view.
  2. Psalm 65:4-5 came as a soothing balm to my stormy soul this morning. “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple! By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation.” God has met my deepest need for a Savior; everything else is icing on the cake. But catch that tiny word with in verse 5: “you answer us with righteousness.” God answers my every prayer with his righteousness. The answer to my every prayer is that he will make me more like him (which he knows to be my deepest need, despite what I think I want)…this leads me to my third help.
  3. In his classic book The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee says the same thing in another way: “God makes it quite clear in his Word that he has only one answer to every human need- his Son, Jesus Christ…It will help us greatly and save us from much confusion, if we keep constantly before us this fact, that God will answer all our questions in one way and one way only, namely, by showing us more of his Son.”
  4. When my soul feels starved even when I am spending hours in the word of God, I often need poetry to tell me the truth slant. For, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “truth must dazzle gradually.” Sometimes the oblique angles of poetry can reach my heart better than the direct angles of prose. A poem from Christina Rossetti, “They toil not, neither do they spin,” gave me an image of the truth mentioned in Psalm 65.

“Clother of the lily, Feeder of the sparrow,
Father of the fatherless, dear Lord,
Tho’ Thou set me as a mark against Thine arrow,
As a prey unto Thy sword,
As a ploughed up field beneath Thy harrow,
As a captive in thy cord,
Let that cord be love; and some day make my narrow
Hallowed bed according to Thy Word. Amen.”

A ploughed-up field under his harrow describes exactly how my soul has felt. Though I have been taking deep dives into Scripture, I feel like I keep coming up empty-souled. I feel stuck and trapped. But I love how Rossetti said, in essence, “Do whatever you please, for I know it is done in love; only, make me more like you in the end.”

He hears our prayers. Even when they seem to bounce back without their desired answer, they come back to us with more of Christ – and Christ is the very best answer God could ever give us. Press on, my prayer-weary friends. You are being shaped into His likeness even in what feels like emptiness.